Putin agrees to lead party

(iht) - Surprising no one, President Vladimir Putin accepted an offer Tuesday to lead the dominant political party in Russia once he leaves office next month and takes the post of prime minister, potentially setting the stage for years of power-sharing with President-elect Dimitri Medvedev, his hand-picked successor to the Kremlin.

At a party congress that played like a disconcerting mélange of U.S. national political convention, Soviet-era Communist Party Congress and corporate pep rally, Putin agreed to be the chairman of United Russia, a party that has been regarded as an arm of the Kremlin since it was created in 2001.

Until Medvedev takes office May 7, Putin said it would be inappropriate for him to be officially affiliated with a particular party. Once he is prime minister, he said, he sees no such problem, calling a dual party and government role "a perfectly civilized, natural and traditional practice for democratic states."

Before the hundreds of delegates and guests who filled Gostiny Dvor, a convention complex just steps from Red Square and the Kremlin, Putin added: "Harmonious work between the cabinet and the parliamentary majority offers an opportunity to meet successfully the challenges of economic development, improve the quality of health care and education, increase the incomes of our citizens and strengthen the defense capability of our nation.

"Therefore, I gladly accept the offer of the members of the party and its leadership. Thank you very much. I am ready to take on the additional responsibility and lead United Russia."

Putin's words to the crowd, which he addressed twice, were greeted with multiple standing ovations - and the vote to make him party leader was proclaimed unanimous. Yet his appearance bore significantly less of the Soviet stamp that accompanied the previous party congress, last October, when a textile worker and a paralympic athlete appeared on stage and appealed to Putin to stay on as Russia's leader.

Also distinctly un-Soviet was the length of this congress, which convened for only about two hours over the past two days.

At the October congress, Putin said he would consider the post of prime minister if the country elected a president he could work with. On Tuesday, he noted that everything had gone according to plan.

"Dimitri Medvedev, the very man that I recommended to the country and the electorate, has been elected president of Russia," he said. "I have therefore accepted his proposal, one that was supported by United Russia and other parties, to head the government of the Russian Federation in accordance with the time frame stipulated in the Constitution."

Since the parliamentary elections last December, United Russia has controlled 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament. Critics say the lack of a viable opposition and the party's monolithic structure make it a modern-day version of the Soviet Communist Party. (The surviving Communist Party of the Russian Federation and other small parties have, in these critics' eyes, been harassed into oblivion.)

Boris Gryzlov, the leader of United Russia, who proposed Putin for the post, found suitably laudatory words.

"We are a strong party," he said. "And we will grow even stronger when the leader of our electoral list, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, becomes chairman of the Russian government. The 2007 elections to the State Duma have confirmed his status as national leader, becoming in essence a referendum in support of the course that is being carried out."

Putin headed the party's ticket for the December elections, even though he was not then - and is not now - a member of United Russia.

Putin did not run for a third consecutive term as president, which would have violated the Constitution. But analysts have speculated that he and Medvedev could alternate between the posts of president and prime minister without ever formally defying the law.

In Russian society, that prospect has revived an almost forgotten genre, the political anecdote, which flourished around kitchen tables in Soviet times.

"It's 2036, and Putin and Medvedev are sitting in the Kremlin drinking," goes one anecdote making the rounds. "Putin asks Medvedev: 'Dim, which of us is president today?' Medvedev answers: 'Damn, I don't remember.' So they go to the corridor to check the sign on the door. Medvedev: 'Vov, you're president today.' Putin: 'Then, Dim, you go buy the beer.' "

Medvedev also addressed the congress Tuesday, but to a much more muted response.

Medvedev, who has worked with Putin for almost 20 years, said that just as Putin did not join United Russia as president, he, too, should remain above the party fray for now.

Alexander Rahr, program director for Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said this might signal an effort to put some distance between himself and Putin.

By refusing party discipline, Rahr noted, Medvedev avoided being caught in "some new kind of dependencies."

"If he had joined the party, he would have received a new boss," Rahr said. "That means the head of the party: Putin." Others, including party and government officials, said Putin's new post was a sign of growing normality and stability in Russia.

"Today is a new stage in the development of the political system of Russia, the model that is recognized in the world, and has many years of experience and history, where the winning party and its leader form the government," said Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St. Petersburg. "I think that this is a logical, clear, civilized European decision."

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